All images by Cindy Kunsman and Under Much Grace and used with permission.
I’ve spent years reading, thinking, and writing about objectification – to treat someone as if they are a mere object instead of the unique, complex, and valuable person that they are. The cognitive bias of salience describes general aspects of this attribution error which overlaps with some others – that of objectifying people as primarily good or evil by splitting them and their worth entirely into only one one or the other.
[Please take note of the many links embedded in this particular post for background on some of the concepts and history referred to in the post. This one seems rather dense with them.]
The black and white thinking that high demand groups and relationships use to advance authoritarianism force simplistic assessments by making leaders and model citizens who follow their program as divine and intrinsically good, so the related CranioRectal Inversion has been termedthe halo effect. This contrasts a whole range of possibilities when people are viewed in the opposite light – diminishing or minimizing others and their influence. Spiritual abusers love to cast those who fail to follow the informal rules of conduct or the affection of leadership as ranging from problematic to malicious if not demonic. I’ve dubbed it the horn effect for this discussion.
This blog often explores both concepts as essential components of spiritual abuse but uses the term objectification to describe horns far more frequently than it does halos. Why might that be so?
When considering CRIs as destructive because they cast reality as something unreasonably or irrationally different, halos themselves seem to escape scrutiny. For the Christian, there are aspects of the halo effect that quite easily overlap with grace, so it is quite easy for the concept to become muddled. How far does grace extend?
I remember talking with a mature Christian who used to help others to develop better Bible study habits to help them enrich their spiritual lives. I mentioned a New Testament passage that actually said to “be angry,” but in so doing, “don’t sin” in the process. Because of the pressure of the stereotypes of “how Christians should” behave, she realized that she’d failed to even recognize that simple, very direct statement before. It wasn’t obscure, either, and it happened to fall in the same section of the Bible that the Christian Patriarchy movement used to dehumanize women and tolerate abuse from their husbands.
A discussion ensued about examples where Christians are actually taught to be tolerant and not to be easily angered by others without due cause. Upon closer inspection of other evidence in the Bible about how to cope with injustice and maltreatment, she began to see the truth emerge from the way some skewed the subject. Together, we found more principles that balance kindness and patience with justice and self-advocacy as well as respect for others.
The High Demand Duality Dance
My friend’s stupefied response as she realized that she’d fallen into this common trap of the halo and how its antithesis comes into play. By the (unhealthy) encouragement to deny and her natural and just anger along with the degradation of women, she learned to place a halo on everyone else’s head. A skewed sense of grace as well as her own diminished worth required that she tolerate anger from all others, but her family and her church which followed “Biblical Patriarchy” defined anger (particularly in women) as a sin.
I once wrote a post that explored “what goes on in the mind of the spiritual abuser” which talks about the process of living in the duality that one must find to exist within a high demand group. In effect, the cognitive biases of halos and horns touch on aspects of the same process, noting how the two can serve balance one another as a means of coping. Lifton called this process the healing-killing paradox. (He coined the term while exploring how physicians in Nazi Germany could perpetrate such atrocities. I think that it also describes how spiritual caregivers who help others with emotional and spiritual healing can likewise justify immoral behavior within high demand religions.)
Otherwise virtuous people whose life work involves healing resort to their own healing-killing paradox to survive times of war and keep them functioning when called upon to do things that are considered immoral during peace time. (One not need be a Nazi doctor to experience it, either.) Moral disengagement kicks in under the guise of the virtue of following the greater good and the orders of one’s superiors. That disengagement offers the illusion that someone else is morally responsible for the required immoral act. It also provides a little bubble of some sense of meaning and existence – a type of sanity – amidst impossible circumstances when trapped and helpless to exit. It becomes a means of survival, all thanks to our ability to use cognitive bias. It’s one of the gifts/curses of our humanity.
Cindy is a member of the Spiritual Abuse Survivor Blogs Network.
Cynthia Mullen Kunsman is a nurse (BSN), naturopath (ND) and seminary graduate (MMin) with a wide variety of training and over 20 years of clinical experience. She has used her training in Complementary and Alternative Medicine as a lecturer and liaison to professional scientific and medical groups, in both academic and traditional clinical healthcare settings. She also completed additional studies in the field of thought reform, hypnotherapy for pain management, and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) that is often associated with cultic group involvement. Her nursing experience ranges from intensive care, the training of critical care nurses, hospice care, case management and quality management, though she currently limits her practice to forensic medical record review and evaluation. Most of her current professional efforts concern the study of manipulative and coercive evangelical Christian groups and the recovery process from both thought reform and PTSD.
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